Personal Branding

6:13-17 “Therefore put on the full armour of the Mall, so that when the popular kids come, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to be cool. Stand tall then, with the belt of Armani buckled round your waist, with the breastplate of Lagerfeld in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the house of Prada. In addition to all this, take up the shield of Calvin Klein, with which you can extinguish all the bad odours from the evil one. Take the hat of Gaultier and the handbag of Vuitton, which is the word on the street.”

Advertising is a strange phenomenon. Between the stuff that we voluntarily watch, there are short films about how dissatisfied you ought to be with yourself.

Here in South Africa, there’s an ad running in which an attractive young woman passes a male social equivalent on the escalator, and he makes a fool of himself chasing after her. Catching up with her in a revolving door, she does what all people do under those circumstances: she exposes her armpit to him. The little animated trashcan up there and the immediate revulsion of her suitor tell us that her seemingly successful existence is being hampered by body odour. Naturally, the young man rejects her.

Ads do that all the time. You’re too fat. Your skin is bad. Your cellphone ought to be attracting gorgeous women to you but isn’t. Your car is boring, which reveals that you are boring (but we can change that). So it goes on. The purpose in all this is not merely to insult us (in fact, most often we seem not to hear the insult, because it comes in such a shiny package). Rather, companies attempt to make us brand conscious: they attempt to make us aware that we have a public brand, and by grafting their brand into ours, they can make us better.

Hermit Crab

Socialite Hermit Crab wouldn't be seen dead without the right anemones

The question is, for what reason do we want to be better? The answer that occurs to me is that we seem to think that a better personal brand will lead to increased popularity, which will in turn lead to greater love and acceptance and happiness. As the Counting Crows song incorrectly mopes: “When everybody loves you, you can never be lonely”.

Ironically, the opposite is as likely to be true. The trouble with personal brand-managing is that it forces us to calculate a series of complicated social equations that all aim at establishing the net gain to your brand, but which are destructive of relationships.

The tobacco industry continues to exist in spite of smoking being a smelly, expensive and deadly habit, because it provides instant ‘brand positioning’ for the user. Perhaps even more so because it’s life threatening, it continues to define the smoker as anti-establishment, as slightly rebellious and miserable, all of which is society gold when you’re eighteen.

When we’re slightly older, our vehicles often become our primary means of branding. I drive a rusting VW Fox, which puts me relatively low on the pecking order. Thus, the sickliest, feeblest individual in a hulking SUV becomes ‘dominant male’ on the roads, which would naturally not be the case were we to meet in person. But I also drive a 1000 cc BMW motorcycle, which enables me to feel better and more powerful than anyone on a 125 cc Chinese scooter.

These kinds of transactions are going on all the time, and never more so than when we buy into an advertising mentality about our personal brands. Inevitably, it means that we become ‘consumers’ of people – not physically, obviously – we become brand cannibals, perhaps. The people that I choose as friends will be regarded as my social equals, and this will cause others to form opinions about me on account of them.

What will it do for my brand if I am seen with people who can only afford those clothes?

If I’m in middle management, I can’t be friends with the postman, because I need to get in with the company directors, regardless of how much I get on with the postman and hate my boss.

If only I could be friends with a bona fide celebrity!

Consequently, concern with public image and popularity leads to rejection of people who are deemed unsuitable, and it leads to impenetrable social cliques that are organised for personal gain and not relational depth. The goal of cultivating popularity in order to find love, acceptance and happiness gives way to commodified relationships that have more to do with rejection, superficiality and alienation.

Wisdom in the Paradox
Philippians 2:1-5 addresses a community full of veteran Roman soldiers, in which church members had clearly begun to squabble and become defensive about their own reputations. In response to this, Paul urges Christians to be so united that they can be described as having one mind, and as being ‘co-souled’. He adds:

‘Do nothing according to strife or conceit, but in humility esteem one another above yourselves, each one not considering his own things, but also the things of others. Let the same attitude be in you that is also in Christ Jesus.’

If I were to translate the message into the language I’ve been using so far, it is that our primary concern should be for the ‘brand’ of the community, and not of ourselves. If we labour to improve the standing of everyone else in the community, and if we direct our attentions towards the concerns of others, then unity is the result. If love and acceptance is our desire for ourselves, then becoming someone who is loving and accepting of others (regardless of what they can personally do for your brand popularity) is the means by which this is achieved.

The Right Apartment: blow it up, Tyler

In short, advertising sells us the lie. You can buy your way into higher society, but money can’t buy you love, as the mop-haired ones once crowed. Carefully constructing your own brand can purchase popularity, but not the deep relationships that we actually want.

Once again, the paradox: serving oneself ensures that one’s needs are never met, and dying to self is the path to true life.


DryErase Girl and the wonder of postmodernity

elyse porterfieldA host of reputable internet news sites and just about everyone on FaceBook was suckered by a story of a young woman who quit her job by means of messages drawn on a dry-erase board, and supposedly sent to the whole office. Her resignation involved exposing her boss’ sexism, body odour and hypocrisy, most tellingly ridiculing him for wasting half his work-week playing Farmville. You can see the original post here: The Chive

This creative and funny resignation made ‘Jenny’ an over-night hit, but very soon it was uncovered that it was all just another attention-getting scam. Her real name is Elyse, she is an actress, and the boss from hell doesn’t exist.

Although the creators of this post claim it was merely aimed at entertainment, scamming people in this way is a betrayal of trust. That is a good thing in some ways, because it at least teaches us that we should not believe everything we read. Some skepticism is essential, as it alerts us to the danger of trusting someone who stands to gain from our trust. And yet on the other hand, society is founded on a degree of mutual trust. A default basis of trust is important to most of the transactions within society, and betrayal of trust is destructive of that basis. This, I take it, is one reason why we send people to prison for theft, rather than just forcing them to repay what was taken. The damage done to society by abusing trust is greater than the individual loss of an item. So it is stupid for hoaxes like this to be propagated, because they engender skepticism where it doesn’t belong, and they breed a sense of alienation from our world and each other. Like the boy who cried wolf, the lie is easy to sell, because it is of such minor benefit to the liar, but it starts a precedent that is ultimately of severe harm to society.

Will postmodernism please just go away now?
TechCrunch reported about this DryErase Girl scam after securing an interview with its creator, serial hoaxer Leo Resig. In true postmodern fashion, he told them that people “want to believe.” He continued:

The purpose of the hoax was to entertain and inspire, not to inform, so what difference does it make if the story has a single ounce of truth?

Postmodern thinking is comfortable in belief that is divorced from reality. I wonder how it is possible to root belief in a known lie. What is Leo asking me to believe exactly?

Beyond that, the entertainment value of this post lies in the humiliation of an evil boss who (among other things) monitors office internet use, but hypocritically spends half his week on lame internet games. If it’s not true, there is no quick-witted Jenny, no humiliation, no Farmville abuse, and none of the consequences for any of this that a real-life version would elicit. What we’re left with is a snap-shot of a sitcom cliche. It’s extremely doubtful that many of us find sitcom cliches entertaining at all, but I’m certain even fewer of us would find this concoction funny if we knew that it was fiction.

And really, Leo, the purpose was to inspire? Even if we had bought into this as fiction, ‘Jenny’ is not especially inspirational. But having set it up as reality, as an act with human consequences, its ability to inspire depends entirely upon it’s having loads of ounces of truth.

Once again, postmodernism gives people the vocabulary to babble about not needing to connect a person’s inner world with the world outside us, and it’s complete garbage. Let’s do each other a favour today and kick an emperor’s-new-clothes postmodernist in the shins.